Bush Speech Shows U.S. Conservatism Has a New Playbook

I spent Thursday evening on the floor of the Republican convention, and I can report with confidence that the delegates didn’t once break into a chant of “OWN-ER-SHIP.” They were happy, of course. They would have been happy if George W. Bush had read from the phone book. But when he started discussing his “ownership society,” some looked as if they thought he was reading from the phone book.

Still, despite dazed delegates and dissing pundits, the first half of President Bush’s speech was probably the most enduring part. It may not help Mr. Bush win the election of 2004, which, it is now clear, is going to be relentlessly focused on national security. But the ideas mark an important effort to redefine conservatism in this country. And whether President Bush wins re-election or not, they signal a new era in national politics.

Former congressman Jack Kemp, who was sitting proudly in the vice president’s box on Thursday night, symbolizes the old era. He convinced the Republican Party in 1978 to embrace across-the-board tax cuts. In every national election over the subsequent quarter-century, the party proudly waved the tax-cut banner. Candidates didn’t need to think long or hard about what economic-policy proposals to put at the center of their campaigns. The answer was always the same: cut taxes.

But those days are over. Not for decades will a Republican candidate be able to run on an agenda of broad-based tax cuts. In the short term, budget deficits make that position untenable. In the longer term, the retirement of the baby boomers will do the same.

The fight for the next half-century will be over how to prevent taxes and spending from being swollen to European dimensions by government-retirement programs. And politically, that puts conservatives back to where they were before quarterback Kemp abandoned the football field three decades ago — playing defense.

President Bush’s speech offered a rough start at giving conservatives a new offense. “Government,” he argued, “should help people improve their lives, not try to run their lives.” The new goal is no longer to make government smaller. Rather, the goal is to change the nature of government so it empowers citizens, provides them more choices and gives them more control over their finances and their lives.

This is a very big idea — even if it sounded like a laundry list of policy retreads. At its most ambitious, it would be a redefinition of capitalism that would, as the president said, “extend the frontiers of freedom.”

The president packaged his proposals as a response to a changing global economy. Unlike his opponents, he didn’t decry developments like “outsourcing” — an inevitable, and even beneficial, component of free and open trade. Instead, he proposed retooling government to give individuals more flexibility to adapt to, and benefit from, the changes that a global economy inevitably brings.

“This changed world can be a time of great opportunity for all Americans to earn a better living, support your family and have a rewarding career,” he said. “Many of our most fundamental systems — the tax code, health coverage, pension plans, worker training — were created for the world of yesterday, not tomorrow. We will transform these systems so that all citizens are equipped, prepared, and thus truly free to make your own choices and pursue your own dreams.”

The devil — or, more accurately, an entire ring of hell — is in the details. And the president offered precious few details. He wants Americans to have a “nest egg you can call your own” as part of a revised Social Security system. But where is the money going to come from to finance this change and fix a broken system? Massive borrowing? An increase in the retirement age? A cut in benefits?

The president also called for tax overhaul, emphasizing changes that will cause the government to lose revenue — such as tax breaks for savings and investment — while avoiding any mention of measures that would raise revenue. Would he, for instance, try to eliminate the state- and local-tax deduction — a top target of conservative reformers because it favors high-tax states?

Then there are the changes in the health-care system. “In an ownership society,” the president said, “more people will own their own health-care plans.” That signals a gradual shift to a system in which you, rather than your employer or the government, will make key decisions about your health coverage. But who will pay, and how much?

Republicans have a long way to go before this notion of an “ownership society” becomes a crowd-pleaser like tax cuts. But American political conservatism needs an overhaul. And this is a step in the right direction.

Write to Alan Murray at alan.murray@wsj.com